Neymar played again yesterday in a match watched English audiences. He didn’t burn bright, like magnesium, but he wasn’t bad. Experienced Neymar-on-English-audience-watchers amongst you may remember him shining in a 2-0 victory against Scotland, when he not only looked to have a box of tricks, but also a bag of tricks, a carry-case of tricks, and brought some hand-luggage of tricks with him, too. If you watch him on YouTube you get the same impression.
That ‘not bad’ is the same affliction that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has often suffered from when the English are watching. Despite producing great quality for a great length of time (his nine league titles in ten seasons doesn’t tell us anything in depth, but it clearly isn’t accidental) Zlatan only really splashed down in the UK with that overhead kick against England. I’d reckon his goal in the first Classique of the season was probably better, as it goes, but there’s no shortage of moments to choose from.
The same is true of Neymar. Though his ‘big game’ audition against England (or you may remember him playing against Chelsea in the World Club Cup) suggested there’s something lacking, such a small sample size is unwise to make a decision, especially in one so young. Barcelona’s scouts are not, in other words, imbeciles.
It is the Catalans that have signed Neymar for next season of course. He is the latest in a long list of strikers from outside La Masia to try his hand in the blaugrauna shirt, the Barcelona academy being gloriously productive in the middle of the park, but throwing up diamonds rather less often at either end of the field. Neymar treads, then, where Zlatan, where David Villa, where possibly even Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho, have gone before.
He is, thus, charged with not only slotting in with Lionel Messi, in a FIFA Players’ Dream Forward Line, but in creating something different in the Barcelona team, something that might help them past Bayern the next time they face the Germans. Scoring goals is, generally, not Barcelona’s problem. They scored 115 of them in the Liga this season. They scored none in their meek submission to the Champions of Europe, something that, for a genuine contender to that throne, is not good enough.
If you’re a fast bowler, you generally aim not to hit the stumps. It might sound a nonsense, but its true. Every now and then, however, you have to bowl a ball that would hit the stumps, otherwise the batsman would never need to hit any of your deliveries. It creates an element of doubt in the batsman’s head, creates the thought that the ball MIGHT hit the stumps, even if unlikely, and means that the batsman, sometimes, HAS to play at a ball he might otherwise leave. ‘Keeping him honest’ is the phrase in cricketing parlance.
Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona were wonderful to watch at times this season; the slick passing and glorious possession, before unleashing a scything ball to (generally) Messi, was far too good for many of their opponents who, although they knew what was coming, were unable to stop it. However, Bayern utterly destroyed that style of play in the Champions League semi-final and Barcelona, however much they have mastered that system, had nothing to ‘keep Bayern honest’.
Simplistically, you might hear that Barcelona should employ a Drogba-like battering ram to take that role. I can understand it might be helpful to have such a player in reserve to use late into the piece (in important games), but to do that permanently is to sacrifice a more adept ball-player, which is not the Barcelona way; Barca generally operate with control, rather than as a counter-attacking unit. Its why some of the recent Clasicos have been so enthralling. Real Madrid epitomise the exact opposite style to Barcelona – it is a clash of philosophy, too.
Hence, then, the introduction of a player who should be able to create different avenues of attack of his own. Neymar’s success at Barcelona depends most importantly, I guess, on him not being Messi. He is the counter-point, the ‘other option’, the Plan B (or his presence confirms the existence of both Plan A and Plan B). Moreover, he does not need to score 60 goals to be a success, just the few goals that Barcelona didn’t score this season – those against Bayern and, as those games are so important too, Real Madrid.
He’s plenty talented enough to do it, and plenty confident enough to do it. There’s just one problem, really.
Even if he does do it, the far more important aspect of Barcelona’s summer recruitment is in defence. With Puyol coming towards the end of his career, and Song/Mascherano probably not the long-term answer, there’s holes, big holes, to be plugged (one of them behind Daniel Alves), and no amount of goals up the other end can solve that particular problem. Bayern scored seven goals in their two games against Barcelona. Yes, it was slightly anomalous but it still happened. You will not progress through a Champions League semi-final in which you concede seven goals, Messi or no Messi.
Using that tie as a reference point, which Barcelona will most likely do (if you build from your lowest ebb, the problems are easier to see – nothing masks them), there is much to fix at the Camp Nou. Neymar is a fine start to the rebuilding, but that’s all he is. Its going to be an interesting summer.